Ah, Groundhog Day…

I have a feeling I’ve been here before…

I’m not talking about the recent event when the behavior of a groundhog (or groundhogs, depending on your regional preference) determines our future. I’m talking about the movie,”Groundhog Day”  where Bill Murray’s character goes through the same day over and over and over again.

This is my life in a nutshell. I cycle through the same experiences / crap / joys / sorrows on a regular basis, each time without much active recollection of how it was before and what my experience was then. It applies to the good things, as well as the bad things, and my neuropsych is repeatedly surprised that I’m wrangling with the same issues that I was wrangling with, several weeks, months, or even years ago. Sometimes I have “new” experiences that are repeats of what I experienced only the day before, and I have to go through the whole learning process all over again.

One example I can think of was back in December, when I had that business trip overseas. Each day, I got up with this terrible, terrible dread — almost crippling anxiety over what was going to happen that day. It was awful, and I literally did not want to leave my room. I just wanted to stay behind closed doors, where I had no interaction with anyone, where I couldn’t possibly screw things up, and where I could move at my own pace and not adapt to anything new or different around me.

And each day, I literally forced myself to get dressed and go out into the world. Each day, I rediscovered that I was able to communicate, that I was capable of understanding what others were saying, even if I didn’t get every single word, and that the world outside was something to be explored and discovered, not dreaded and avoided.

Then the next day when I got up again, it was back to battling the crippling dread, the fear, the anxiety… the monumental effort of getting myself OUT the door… and the happy discovery that I could indeed handle myself well in the world beyond the hotel room. And at the end of each day, I was able to kick back and really enjoy myself in that space, just reveling — all over again — in the “discovery” that I was really going to be okay.

Now I have another business trip coming up that will take me overseas. This time I am going to a country where I do not speak the language. I have been studying a bit, which has been kind of funny — I found some audio files to learn from, but when I started to listen to them, it turned out to be all “Stop or I’ll shoot!” and “Put down your weapon!” and “How many armed men are there?” — apparently a law enforcement or military training course. At least I know how to say “Don’t shoot!” if I get into any trouble while I’m on my trip. You never know… there are some pretty rough neighborhoods where I’m going.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that for some reason, I seem to have just a terrible, terrible memory for things that have happened to me before. This is true of good things… and bad things. I seem to get myself into situations, over and over again, doing the same thing and expecting different results, and then I suffer and chafe when things don’t turn out like I think they’re going to.

Like trying to get out of the house to get to work… Time and time again, I get up thinking that I can just take a little time to check my email and/or do some little things around the house, and then I’ll be able to get to work on time. And time and time again, I get sidetracked on one thing or another… and I end up rushing and being later than I wanted to be. I make up the difference at the back end, of course, staying late — even later than I would have to, actually, because I start to warm up around 6 p.m., and it’s hard for me to take a break when I’m finally making good progress. Even so, even if I do make up the difference in the hours, the simple fact is that I do this over and over again, thinking that this time it will be different.

Insane? Well, according to some, it is. Whatever you call it, it gets frustrating, and I feel like a complete idiot.

I guess part of the equation of this apparent failure to learn, is the fact that I have to stay very present in the current moment, or I can really lose my bearings. I think this 100% here-and-now mindset has developed over years of having to navigate so many issues — light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, exhaustion, vertigo, nausea, pain of all kinds, headache, distractability, and more — but still needing to be functional. I think I just developed the habit of focusing so completely on the present so that I could function in that moment, that everything else — before and after — just disappears. Or it never has a chance to get set in my mind.

I think also the stress of daily living over the years has impaired my ability to learn. Just having to deal with all the sh*t of my issues and symptoms and the screw-ups and the adjustments and the confusions and distractions… it can get pretty stressful, and I’m sure it’s had some impact on my ability to learn.

Then again, in other areas I learn extremely well — like this language thing. I’m actually picking up a lot of good stuff, and I think I’ll be able to at least ask people for help and understand basic numbers and directions, and be able to thank people for their help, without too much struggle. Languages seem to come pretty naturally to me, and it surprises me how much sense they make to me after a relatively short period of time.

So, it’s not like I’m completely disabled with my learning. But experiential learning? There, again and again, I end up going through the same things, as though it were the first time ever.

Well, I can’t worry about it. If I approach it like it’s a grand adventure of constant discovery, and I treat each situation like a fun opportunity to have a “new” experience, it’s fine. It keeps me fresh, actually. It keeps me interested in my life. It’s never boring — that’s for sure. The worst thing I can do, is treat myself this means there’s something wrong with me, that it means I’m somehow damaged. If I don’t judge myself and I just accept that about myself — and come up with ways to work with/around my very limited memory… and I don’t get it in my head that this means I have early-onset dementia and I’m losing my mind…. I can work with this.

Hell, I’ve been working with it for as long as I can remember. I just “get lost” sometimes and I have to find my way out of the shadows and dead-ends… which I can do pretty well. I’ve had plenty of practice, you see.

Anyway, life goes on. I have a number of very interesting projects I am working on, and that’s keeping me interested and engaged in my life. I’m learning new things pretty well, and I feel good. I also got a lot of sleep yesterday afternoon, after I was done with my work. I worked from home, so I was able to just crawl into bed when I was done for the day. That was nice. I got about 7 hours of sleep last night, so that’s good, too. And I have all day today and all day tomorrow to kick back and take care of myself. Because I’m flying out in another week, and I need to be healthy and whole to make this trip.

So it goes. Part of me would like to have a better recollection of the things that I have experienced in the past, so that I don’t keep making the same mistakes, and I don’t keep pushing myself and wearing myself out. And I’m thinking about ways I could do that — maybe keep a log of what works for me in different situations, so I can draw on what has worked for me in the past… I had that kind of a log going, about 3 years ago, and it was working well for me. I think maybe I need to resurrect it, so I can continue to draw on my experiences and get my sh*t together better than I currently am. It’s an idea….

Anyway, the day is waiting, and I’ve got to get a move on. It’s always interesting and never boring… and I need to remind myself of how things have been in the past, as I work through my present and into my future.

I’ve been here before, I’m sure… now I need to figure out how to make the best of it.

 

Bringing light

Light is where you find it – find more art like this at http://www.atagar.com/bobsGallery/

I’ve been thinking a lot about this holiday season – and all the ways that it’s associated with light. Most of the “big” traditions I know about feature light of some kind, and no wonder — this time of year is when the days become longer, and we literally can celebrate the return of the light. It’s a physiological thing, as well as a psychological and spiritual thing. And it’s well worth celebrating.

I celebrated yesterday by walking deeper in the woods than I have in a long time. Once upon a time, when I first moved to this place, I was out in the woods for most of my waking hours every weekend, rain or shine, good weather or bad. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the forest — it was the one place I felt at home when I was a kid, and there’s something really calming about being in the woods. When I was younger, I wanted to be a forest ranger, until my guidance counselor talked me out of it because it wasn’t “practical”.

Hm.

Anyway, now I get to be my own forest ranger, and I don’t have to worry about government funding cutting me off from my livelihood, so it’s not all bad, the way it turned out. And yesterday I got a good reminder of the things that matter most to me in my life — clean air, fresh water, room to roam, and friendly, like-minded people also sharing the paths.

And I couldn’t help but think about how — for years after my concussion/TBI in 2004 — I couldn’t go into the woods. I just couldn’t. There was too much stimuli there for me. It was either too bright or too dark, or it was too quiet or it was too loud. I got tired so quickly, and when I did, I got confused and anxious. And the idea of interacting with anyone I came across on the paths, was out of the question. I panicked anytime I had to interact with someone who was out for a nice quiet hike like myself. I also got turned around and lost very easily, and since I have never had the best sense of direction to begin with, I would spend hours just trying to find my way back to where I wanted to go. I told myself I was “exploring” but the fact was, I was getting lost and had to keep walking to find my way back.

And half the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d come from. Even reading maps was impossible for me. Especially reading maps.

So, I quit going into the woods. I gave up my forest. And things were very dark and dreary for a number of years. The crazy part was, I told myself it was by choice, not something I was stuck doing, because I was so trapped in anxiety and sensory overwhelm.

What changed it? I think just living my life. Working with my neuropsychologist to just talk through my daily experience. Also, doing my breathing exercises — and exercising, period. And practicing, practicing, practicing some more at the things I wanted to do, until I could do them pretty close to how I wanted to. And learning to not be so hard on myself for being different now than I was before.

I also really paid attention to the times when I saw signs of more functionality — like when I started going on hikes again, after years away from them. Like when I was able to read an entire book, after years of only being able to read short papers — and not understand much of them at all. Like when I gave things my best shot, and found them turning out pretty darned close to how I intended — sometimes even better.

Taking the edge off my anxiety, giving myself a break, focusing on things that were bigger and more significant than my own petty concerns… those helped. Those brought light to my life.

And it continues to get better.

When I think back on how I was, just five years ago, it amazes me. I was so trapped in a dark place, confused and not knowing what was wrong with me. I didn’t understand what was holding me back, I didn’t understand what was stopping me from just living my life. I didn’t understand how confused I was or what I was confused about. I couldn’t discern the different issues I had, because it was all just a dark blob of problems that pulsed like a nebula of hurt and pain and confusion. When I think about how things are now — with so much light and so much more possibility… it amazes me.

There are answers out there, if we look… if we know to ask. There are solutions out there, if we take the time to be clear about what the issues truly are. There is hope out there, when we are willing to take a chance, have some courage, and move on — move on.

As the days lengthen and we roll towards the spring (I know, winter is just now beginning, officially)… as we take this holiday season to step away from the everyday grind and do something different with ourselves… as we try to imagine what else is out there for us… let’s all remember that as dark as it gets sometimes, the night does pass. There is always dawn and a new day, just around the corner.

Yes, let there be light.

When things don’t go as planned

Sometimes there’s high seas ahead – oil painting by Joyce Ortner – click to see her gallery

I had my doctor’s appointment the other morning, and it went pretty well. I got some antibiotics for the infection that has been bothering my ears and making it hard for me to keep my balance, and I gave my doctor the holiday card my spouse told me I needed to give to them. It was a good call – and I picked out a good card, because it really touched my doctor a lot. They didn’t want to let on, but I could see it meant something. I mean, if you think about it, doctors spend their lives trying to help others. They have their limitations, like all of us, but in the end, their whole reason for doing what they do is to help people.

I have been taking my meds for the past few days, but I’m still having balance issues. I’m going to keep on doing it, and hope for the best. I really don’t want to go back, though. It’s just more opportunity to get put on more meds — which my doctor tried to do, when I told them about the balance issues. They tried to put me on meclozine / antivert, thinking that would fix what was wrong with me, but I told them no, because that stuff just makes me feel rotten and weird and dense, and it doesn’t do a thing for my vertigo. It’s supposed to fix the nausea thing and supposedly make me feel less dizzy, but it’s an antihistamine and the side effects whack me out.

Drowsiness and tiredness and that weird spacey feeling that antihistamines give me, is just not worth it. So, I told them not to prescribe it. Even if they had, I wouldn’t take that stuff. Like I need more crap in my system…Anyway, I can always take Dramamine if it comes to that. I’ve taken it for seasickness and it seemed to help me. At the same time, it still make me feel weird and “off” and the fishing trip I was on was a lot less fun because of it.

Anyway, I had been planning on “having the talk” with my doctor about not being a risk-taker, just having a hard time sorting through the myriad little “issues” I have on a daily basis. For any doctor who is reading this, please take note: TBI can introduce a whole host of physical issues, from noise sensitivity to light sensitivity to touch sensitivity to pain to ringing in the ears… a whole host of physical issues that can cloud the overall picture of one’s health. And that’s not even the mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, which can make everything seem 1000x worse than it really is… or it can make everything seem like it’s nothing at all. This obviously has implications for patients with TBI being able to accurately self-assess their level of well-being. And it’s helpful to address that aspect of our experience.

The only problem is — and I realized this when I was driving to my dr. appointment and was thinking about the best way to broach the subject. I thought about how I would approach it, how I would introduce the topic of my not being a risk-taker, but just a person who struggles with sorting through all the stimuli of each day… and I considered (based on past experience) what my doctor’s response would be.

I’m glad I did think it through, too, because it gradually dawned on me that if I talked about my issues the way I was, my doctor would try to prescribe me something. Or prescribe tests. Or try to DO something, instead of just understanding and thinking things through and letting that inform their approach with me. They tend to jump right into action! as though that will solve anything right off the bat. Sometimes it does. But in some cases, you don’t need a procedure, you need comprehension and understanding and a slightly different way of approaching things.

Knowing what I know about my doctor, after seeing them for a number of years, I really think that if I’d “had the talk” about my issues, I might have ended up fending off a slew of prescriptions and tests — they’ve already tried to get me CT-scanned and/or X-rayed over sinus issues. I mean, I’m sure they mean well, but I am not exposing myself to a bunch of radiation over a sinus infection. Seriously… It’s just not going to happen. Not unless I am in serious danger.

Likewise, I’m not going to raise a red flag that my doctor is going to treat like an invitation to charge. They’ve got a bit of a fight-flight predisposition, and the last thing I want is to have to try to explain and fend off their headlong charges and attacks against what might be vexing me, when all I really want is for them to temper their responses with a little more knowledge. I can easily see them ordering a bunch of tests and prescribing a bunch of meds, in the interest of helping me… and all the while, I just get sucked into the medical system with more crap on my chart to fuel the standard-issue medical responses that pathologize and (over)medicate my condition… when all I really need is some understanding and consideration. All I really need is for people to slow down… but knowing my doctor, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with them.

So, I didn’t have “the talk” with my doctor, and I’m a little disappointed in myself. At the same time, though, I’m glad I thought it through carefully ahead of time. In a way, I feel like I may have dodged a bullet from a weapon that I had trained at myself. I unloaded the weapon and put it down, and now I’m feeling a bit better. What I really need to do is speak up, in the course of conversations, when I feel that things are going too fast or my doctor says something that doesn’t sit right with me. Sometimes I can speak up and defend myself quickly, other times I can’t. I’m working on that. The times when I don’t speak up, I feel terrible afterwards, so that’s more impetus for me to practice speaking up.

That was something I did do on Friday — I spoke up about the meds and the tests and the assumptions my doc was making. They seemed a little peeved that I was questioning their judgment, but you know what? It’s my body, it’s my life, and I need to do what I need to do. Provided, of course, I’m not putting myself in danger.

Anyway, that’s one example of things not working out as planned, and it being okay.

Another example is last night, when I decided to go to bed early, then I got caught up in going on Facebook “one last time”. I swear, that thing is a massive time-sink, and I have to be careful. By the time I got to bed, it was over an hour later, which just sucks. Oh, well. I’ll just have to nap today. I had planned on doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, but the other thing that’s happening is that we have company from the party last night. Rather than driving home, we had someone stay over, which is fine. But now I need to be social and hang out, instead of running out to the mall. That’s annoying to me. But come to think of it, I actually knew that we might have company staying over, so I’m not sure why I was thinking that I was going to run out, first thing this morning, and take care of that. More annoyance — this time with myself.

Oh well — tomorrow is another day, and I can probably get all my shopping done early in the morning before the crowds hit the mall. I pretty much know what I want, and there’s not much of it, so it will keep things simple. Plus, having less time to spend on it really focuses me. Even if that doesn’t happen, and I get stuck in the crowds, and the lines are long, and I get trapped in the holiday crush, I can always check Facebook while I’m standing on line.

So, yeah – plans. I have them. We all have them. And when they don’t go the way we expect them to, then it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to handle them. I can get worked up and bent out of shape. Or I can roll with it and come up with another course of action. I can get annoyed at this, that, and the other thing, or I can just let it all go and see what happens. When I’m tired (like I am today), I am less able to just let it all go. When I am stressed (like I am over my job, even though I am off on vacation for a week and a half – the residual stress is ridiculous), it’s harder for me to just BE.

I’ve noticed an increasing level of intensity with me – I’m starting to lose my temper again (though inside my head, not out in the world around me so much). I’m starting to react really strongly to little things… like I used to, before I started exercising regularly and doing my breathing exercises. I’m noticing a change, and I’m not liking it much — especially the parts where I’m not rolling with changes as well as I would like to. Things are starting to sneak up on me again.

So, it’s back to using the tools I was working with  before. Despite my good progress, I had gotten away from the exercise and the breathing for a while, in part because I just got so uptight over doing it each and every day like clockwork, and also because I just needed to let it all sink in for a while. I was working really hard on my technique and also my regular practice, and it got to be just another chore that didn’t have much sense to it.  I just hit an impasse with it — maybe I had too many ideas and my head was spinning, maybe I had too much experience that I needed to just get used to… in any case, I needed a break.

So, I took a break. And I must admit it was a pretty big relief to not “have” to do the sitting and breathing every morning. All of a sudden, I had extra time, and ironically, I felt like I could breathe. I was still doing intermittent breathing throughout the day, when I felt my stress level increasing, but I didn’t have a daily practice.

Still, I do feel like I need to get back to a bit of that again. I’ve had my break. Now I need to try it again to see how it helps me… pick up where I need to — maybe where I left off, or maybe somewhere else… Just do what I need to do to get myself back on track and take the edge off this intensity, which has been building and is starting to drag me down.

Things change. Plans change. What we think we can do is often very different from what we can do, which is also different from what we DO do. Life has a way of changing directions on us when we least expect it, and the only constant is change. So, I need to work on my flexibility and chill-ness, so I don’t end up ship-wrecked over every little thing. Yeah… I need to work on that. And so I shall.

Now, to go for my morning walk in the woods.

Once you find something more

… more than your personal pain, more than your own problems, more than your difficulties and drawbacks and struggles… everything changes. Once you find something that is bigger than yourself, that means more than any problems you might have, that lasts longer than the next 24 hours… 24 days… 24 months… 24 years… Once you find something that lights you up and brings you out of your shell, a whole lot of… well, nothing-ness… can be put to rest.

See, the thing is – when we are so caught up in what is wrong with us, it takes our attention off the things that are right with us… the ways that we can help others who have their own issues which may be all but impossible for them to handle. When we are so caught up in managing our own issues, in dealing with our own pains, we don’t have the energy and the time to look around and see what else is there for us to do with ourselves. We spend so much time consumed with ourselves, that everything else fades into the background.

And our lives become that much smaller, that much darker, that much less live-ly.

I only say this, because I myself have fallen deep into this quagmire, and I have been stuck there for many, many years. I spent so much time in my childhood and my young adulthood, and then in my adult years, working hard to manage my issues and deal with life around me. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I didn’t understand the nature of my issues, and everyone around me had their own problems that were keeping them from helping me see what was going on with me.

If anything, they were still dealing with their own problems they first encountered as children, and never fully managed to resolve or escape. I’m sure they were very bit like me, when they were young — needing help but never getting it, because the adults who could help them were too caught up in their own pain and problems to see beyond and see what was in front of them.

And so the cycle continued.

And so it continues to this day — and probably will, well into the future.

The thing of it is, it’s not really necessary to ONLY have this happen, generation after generation. I don’t imagine for a moment that we’re going to help everyone to resolve their issues overnight and usher in a new world of love and light and bliss by this time next year. I’m not saying it’s not eventually possible, but these things take time. And in the meantime, we need to take these little steps to help the situation — not only helping ourselves to get past what is dragging us down, but helping others to see that there might be something else possible that they could experience, besides the hurt and the pain and the anger and the fear.

I don’t want to get all “airy” here — what I’m talking about is actually really practical, really commonplace, and really everyday. It’s just this basic fact that things are hard all ’round, but we can make them a little easier by getting over ourselves. I do believe it’s important to take care of yourself, but sometimes “looking out for number one” gets us — and everyone around us — in trouble. Especially when the pains and the hurts we’re trying to make up for are actually invented in our own minds.

Take for example someone who lives their life around being rewarded for enduring difficulties in life. I know lots of people like this, and at times I count myself as one of them, so it’s an easy example for me to use. Say someone grew up in a family that had a lot of problems — for one reason or another, life was chaos. Growing up, there was a lot of pain and frustration, and certain habits got “grooved” into everyone’s thinking and behavior. Even after growing up, those old habits still stayed in place, because … well, you never know what might happen, and something really awful could come ’round the corner any minute. This person spends their adult life on edge, always looking for that THREAT that may or may not come, and by the end of each day, they feel completely exhausted — depleted by their constant need to be on alert.

Is their life really, truly dangerous? Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps they live in a very safe area, they have a good job, and all their needs are met — so much so, that they have a constant supply of luxury items available to them anytime, for the having. Still, because their mind is trained to look for danger, and they are accustomed to being on guard, they end each day in Paradise convinced that they’ve barely survived Real And Present Danger, so therefore, they should be rewarded.

Or at the end of each day, they are so exhausted by their hyper-vigilance, that they attack everyone around them for pulling on them and draining them and keeping them from relaxing after what seemed like an impossible day.

This is one example of how it can go… how we can lose ourselves in our old pain and suffering, because we’re in the habit of focusing on it, and we don’t realize we don’t have to do that anymore. Now, granted, sometimes the pain and suffering is very, very real. What I have gone through in my past, thanks to TBI, was not imaginary. I didn’t make it all up. It was difficult, almost impossible, and it did a lot of damage to me before I realized what was going on. At some point, though, I had to be willing and able to let go of the iron grip I had on my life, on my difficulties, on my challenges. I had to be willing and able to entertain the possibility that A) my own struggles were subsiding but my focus on them was making them worse than they had to be, and B) others were struggling even more than I — with far more serious issues — and for far more genuine reasons.

It took me some time to get to that point, and there were a lot of fits and stops along the way. I can’t say it even sank in for quite some time. But once it did… well, that was interesting. When this started to hit home to me, I felt lost, disconnected… as though I was losing a part of myself. I was, too — I was losing the part of myself that had hardened around my injuries like tough scar tissue that was holding me back from being able to completely move. My injuries were part of my past, they were part of who I was. And if I let them go, who would I be?

Who indeed?

Well, I struggled alone with that for quite some time, until it occurred to me that my injuries weren’t only about me. I’ve always been aware that others struggle with these same types of issues, and that reaching out to others to let them know they are not alone is an important part of my life’s work. Yet part of me has really clung to the idea that my life has been defined by injuries, that it’s held me back, that it’s cost me so much — me, me, me. All about me. Because, well, if it’s not about me, then won’t I disappear?

Yes and no. I now feel that letting go of the “me” that is defined by injury, is the one way I can actually make some sense of what I’ve experienced. It’s ironic — the very thing I hang onto is the thing I need to let go of. At the same time, once I let go of that “me”, I’m free to become something else – someone else – someone who knows what it’s like to really battle these issues, and who still has to work with them, day to day, but who isn’t going to be held back by them, and is going to use their experience to help others, in hopes that they themselves may find freedom one day.

I’m a big believer in freedom. I’m also a big believer in responsibility. And oddly, the very thing that seems to take all the “fun” out of freedom — responsibility — is the thing that makes it even more free.

Because there is something more out there, than the pains we suffer and the injuries we endure. We all — each and every one of us walking around on planet earth — has our own share of pain and suffering. You can’t live on this earth without at least some of that. What we choose to do with it… that’s up to us.

And once you find something more to put your attention on, that isn’t all about your own hurts, your own pains, your own dramas… well, you’d never believe what else is possible in your life.

 

I finished reading a book

Here’s a blast from the past. About a year ago, I wrote this post (but forgot to publish it), absolutely giddy about having finished reading a book. Looking at where I’m at now, it’s pretty amazing the changes I’ve been through. After not having been able to get through an entire book in years (although one of my favorite pastimes was always reading), last November, I actually finished reading a book.

Here’s the post:

November, 2009

Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m., I finished reading Aging with Grace, the book about the Nun Study of those long-lived School Sisters of Notre Dame, which explores how and why some people live long and never succumb to Alzheimer’s or dementia, and why others may be more vulnerable. This book has a lot of meaning to me, because as a multiple TBI survivor, I’m statistically more vulnerable to dementia, and about the last thing I want, is to be incapacitated and demented later in life. No thanks…

I found a number of tips and clues about what you can do to avoid dementia — even if you do have some brain degeneration — and I read reports of nuns who had all the signs of advanced Alzheimer’s, but no symptoms whatsoever before they died. Sounds good to me.

I’m invigorated by this new information. I highly recommend it to anyone. And I’m even more invigorated by the fact that I actually finished the book! It took me a month to read all 219 pages, but I did it!!!

This would not be big news for most people I know. Most people I know read books as a matter of course, and when they start a book, they generally finish it (unless it’s truly awful and/or they run out of time). I, on the other hand, have not finished reading a book I started in a number of years. It’s hard for me to remember the last time I actually reached the last page of a book I started.

Let me walk around my study, looking for a book I know I’ve read cover to cover… Let’s see… I am reasonably certain I’ve read about 56 of the books in my study, which constitute maybe 10% of the total on my bookshelves. And the  most recent one I finished prior to Aging with Grace was consumed in a hurry back in 2006. I may have read something from cover to cover in 2007, but I cannot recall.

Now, mind you, I have tons of books, but most of them I’ve only read the first couple of chapters, if that. It’s a lifelong habit that goes way back to when I was a kid, and I never even really realized it was a problem, until this past year or so, when I started to take a long, hard look at my reading habits — or lack thereof — in the context of my TBIs.

It’s a complicated issue — part difficulty with the material, part difficulty with keeping focused on the material. I can be really distractable, so I often end up wandering off on cognitive tangents, when I’m reading. But part of what feeds my distractability, I think, is the fatigue that sets in after I’ve been reading for a while, as well as the discouragement I feel when I realize my eyes have been skimming pages for the last half hour, and I cannot remember what I just read. It’s complicated. And it sucks. And it never occurred to me before that I might have difficulty reading. I’m such an avid infovore – I’m usually reading something. Who would guess that reading is such a challenge for me?

It’s taken some adjusting to get used to this fact. And the adjustment has been as much of a hit to my self-image as anything else. I was always known as a bookworm. Much of my knowledge comes from books. If I’ve been reading at substandard level all these years without knowing it… and also not grasping a lot of what I was reading… what does that say about me, as a person? Does it completely invalidate many of the beliefs and assertions I’ve had about myself, for over 4 decades? It’s troubling to think so.

But now that I know reading is a problem for me, I can take steps to do something about it.  And that’s good. I literally cannot live this way, not being able to read a book from cover to cover. I am NOT going to continue in life this way. Something must be done. I need a plan. Here’s my plan — which so far has worked well, the first time through.

I need to acclimate myself to reading for longer periods of time, by reading for fun and pleasure, getting up to speed with that, and then starting to read for learning and understanding. I need to practice regularly and build up my stamina, and also develop different strategies for how to handle the material I absorb.

First, for the fun reading, I need to identify a topic that interests me which will stimulate me. I need to have some investment in the material, some payoff, some reward that comes with it. Preferably, I need to find something to read that also has “companion” material, like a movie that was made of it. I need to have the information presented in different formats, that different parts of my brain can “hook into”.

I chose The Bourne Identity, because it’s an action adventure novel that’s broken into relatively short chapters. It’s also got a movie made of it that is one of my favorites, and I have visuals of the action to prompt me as I read along

Second, I need to set aside time to read. I have to have time to do it, when I have time to rest either before or afterwards, or both.

I do this on the weekends. I take naps on the weekends to catch up with my rest. And I read during the afternoons.

Third, I need to gradually increase the amount of time I spend reading. I pay attention to how much time I’m spending, how I’m feeling, how my pace is. And I really congratulate myself, when I’ve read more than 10 pages at a sitting and understood what was being said the whole way through.

I can do this, but I also need to make sure I’m not tiring myself out. I need to make special efforts to reward and praise myself for having read as long as I have. I tend to get down on myself and think I’m stupid, when I’m not reading well, and I assume that it should be easy for me. But my reading has never been as strong as I always thought, and since my fall in 2004, it’s got even worse.

Fourth, I will then transfer my stamina and interest and good experiences with action/adventure fiction to my other non-fiction reading. And I must pace myself, gradually working my way up, again, and re-reading the things that I didn’t get the first time around. I need to keep an action/adventure book on hand, to keep my interest bolstered. I don’t worry so much about finishing the fiction in a timely manner. It’s more for the sake of keeping my spirits up and having a good experience while reading, so I can focus my more intent energies on the non-fiction/professional reading.

This is what I’ve been doing, on and off, with Aging With Grace over the past month. And now that I’ve done it and see that it works(!) I am ready to move on to my professional reading.

This is such important work. My survival and success depends on it. I’ve got a bunch of books I bought in the past that I need to read for work, but I haven’t been able to crack them. Now, I’ve got to do it.  Now I have a strategy and a plan, and I’ve proved (at least once) that it works. Reading really is fundamental. And the fact that I have done it with Aging With Grace has really lit a fire under me.

But before I go any further, it’s time for my Sunday afternoon nap.

Another sort of amnesia

A really interesting thing has been happening with me, lately. It’s actually been unfolding over the past six months or so, when I think about it. More and more, I’m piecing scattered parts of myself back together. Most importantly, I’m becoming increasingly aware that there are pieces of myself I need to piece back together. I’m starting to remember things I used to love to do, things that used to be part of my everyday life, that I couldn’t do without… but suddenly became “pointless” after my last fall.

In particular, mindfulness and meditation are back. And I’m really focusing again on the re-development of the abilities and the interests that keep me focused, centered, and going strong. This return is big. It’s huge for me.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal. After all, everybody loses motivation, now and then. Everybody goes through ups and downs, shifting in and out of specific interests. Why get so worked up?

You have to understand — my shifting away from mindfulness and meditation wasn’t just a flight of fancy. It wasn’t just me getting distracted by other things and taking a break. When I got away from it, I not only got away from it, but I pretty much removed it wholesale from my life.

To understand the full impact of this, you have to comprehend what a significant part of my life mindfulness and meditation were, for many, many years. I had always been a thoughtful kid, growing up. Philosophical, even. I spent a great deal of time contemplating life and its deeper meanings, and I didn’t let the fact that I was young stop me from pondering age-old things. I would meditate on mountain vistas and campfires, commune with nature on solitary walks… be one with the universe while sitting and watching dust particles dance in a sunbeam.

In retrospect, I believe this tendency to contemplate and meditate arose naturally from my difficulties with everyday activities that other kids engaged in. I had trouble with my coordination — real balance problems, at times — and my senses were pretty sensitive when I was tired, which was a lot of the time. I never really fit in, like a lot of kids. But unlike other kids, who went out of their way to remold themselves to they could fit in better, I withdrew to a solitary, almost monk-like life of minding the smallest details of life and extracting meaning from them.

Into my adult life, too, I spent a tremendous amount of time contemplating and meditating, communing with the cosmos whenever I could. I found tremendous comfort in that, a sense of connection that eluded me in everyday life with other people. External situations that others found easy tended to baffle me, so I focused my energies on cultivating an inner life, an inner view of the world that was consistent with my heart and mind. I spent my free time reading and journaling and meditating and exploring spiritual matters. I wasn’t heavily invested in “the things of this world” because I had other interests in mind —  namely, my connection with that still small voice within.

It served me well, too. On the surface, spending a lot of time contemplating and meditating might seem like an interesting hobby, but what good would it really do a person in the real world?

Actually, it helped me tremendously, as I developed a practice I called “modified za-zen” where you maintain your mindful composure and presence of mind in the midst of chaos. It was a real “warrior stance” I took – being impassive and composed even in the face of full-on attack or a schedule packed full of highly stressful tasks. That practice enabled me to play a significant part in many heavy-duty projects at work, and it molded me into a truly competent team player who was a rock and a cornerstone of the groups I was with. It cultivated in me a presence of mind, a peace of mind, that was the envy of my spouse, my friends, my co-workers. Very little could ruffle my feathers, when I was in the zone. I wasn’t always in the zone, to be sure — I had various issues that would come up, no doubt related to my neurology, but that practice of mindful awareness and intentional composure made all the difference in some very tough situations.

After I fell in 2004, that changed.


Broken Bokeh by WatchinDworldGoBy

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered with that meditation stuff. And contemplation? Well, that just seemed like a huge waste of time. As for my composure at work and at home, well, who the hell cared about that anymore? I “decided” I was sick and tired of putting forth the effort to hold myself together. I “decided” it was high time that I had a break and stopped holding myself in check. There was a part of me that suddenly felt like making the effort to sustain my calm was stupid and weak. It just didn’t want to be bothered. It told me I was “choosing” to stop controlling my behavior and stop monitoring my moods and state of mind and actively managing them, but the truth be told, I just couldn’t. The part of me that had used to do that wasn’t working the way it used to. It couldn’t.

It was like the responsible, mature part of me that had good sense about keeping myself centered and sane had been shattered. And in its place I found a selfish, self-centered, self-pitying creature who had a hair-trigger temper and frankly didn’t give a damn what anybody had to say. If that part wanted to act out, it acted out, and it had the best of excuses for doing so. The part of me that had long been conscious of how vital it is to keep centered and calm and have mastery over my behavior, didn’t fully recover from that fall. It was like it got knocked out for a lot longer than my lights went dim, and while it was out, it got pushed out of the way by the other part of me that felt like any attempt at composure was cramping its style.

Whereas I had already spent many, many hours… indeed, many months of my life, if you add up all the hours together… cultivating an equanimity that was the envy of many friends and co-workers, starting at the very end of 2004 (I fell at Thanksgiving), I moved pretty rapidly away from that old practice of mine. And within a year’s time, I was in trouble. Deep doo-doo.

Of course, all this was pretty much invisible to me and my broken brain. I told myself, I had other things to do. I told myself, I had to focus on “real” things. I just let the meditation drop and walked away. And whenever some anger or frustration came up, instead of checking in with myself to see if there was any valid reason for me to act on it (there usually wasn’t), I indulged every one of my whims with a self-righteous self-justification that seemed perfectly logical to my broken brain, but logistically made no sense whatsoever.

The result? A lot of headaches at work, a lot of trouble at home, increasing money issues, relationship issues, and health issues. It just wasn’t good.

But all the while, as my struggles compounded, there was still that raging voice in me that was convinced it had every reason and right to accommodate every single negative impulse I had.  Seeing the connection between my feelings and my behavior and the consequences was next to impossible, in my diminished state. I had literally forgotten that it mattered, for me to get a grip.

Okay, enough background. The good news is, I’m coming back. Those old monitoring parts of me that I had worked so hard to cultivate, are coming back online. It’s more than just feeling better and more alert — I AM better and more alert. I’m able to wake up in the morning, I’m able to engage more fully throughout my days, I’m able to step back and take a look at my moods and my behavior and choose the sorts of responses that will work in my favor, not against me. I’m not just on this mad auto-pilot drive; I’m actually able to slow down and contemplate my life and find real meaning in it again.  I’m also able to relax — really relax. It’s pretty amazing.

And as the time passes, with each new success which I fully realize and appreciate, I build up my stores of lost self-regard, self-esteem, self-respect. I also build up my stores of self-control, and I can actually live without being right about everything, no matter what the costs to my relationships. I am better and better able to choose my responses, and even when people around me are acting up and seemingly going out of their way to provoke me, I’m able to pull back from the engagement, figure out what I want to do and say… and do it.

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. What amazes me even more, is that I went for years without having this as a regular part of my life. It amazes me, I thought I could do without it.

So, I’m enjoying this. Thoroughly. I’m watching my life with a whole new interest, and I’m learning a lot. In a way, I feel as though I’m re-learning skills, like someone re-learns to read and write after a head injury. Like someone re-learns to walk and talk after a stroke. Like someone with amnesia who starts to remember their name, their family, their home, their work… Like someone who wasn’t even fully aware of having amnesia, who suddenly sees a world they once knew, and isn’t sure whether to be elated or dismayed. In truth, it’s a little bit of both. I’m elated that bits and pieces are coming back to me. But I’m also dismayed that I lost sight of them for so long.

It feels very odd to be writing this, and to be realizing it, but I guess I was a lot more impacted in some ways than I really realized. But now that I’ve “got” it, I can move forward. Progress is good.

What really piques my interest is thinking about what got me back on track. I think one of the big things that set it in motion, was taking care of my body — starting to exercise regularly, and waking myself up with exercise and stretching, rather than two strong cups of coffee. That, and stretching and consciously relaxing before I go to sleep at night.

I actually think that I developed a hefty dose of PTSD, in the aftermath. Not right away, not from the fall itself, but rather from the progression of small disasters — bite-size catastrophes — that have dogged me for years. The collapse of jobs, the dramas at home, the startling surprises that I didn’t see coming, the encounters that went poorly or that carried some sort of hurt with them… My sympathetic nervous system has been on high alert for quite some time, now, and it’s taken a toll.

But since I started making a point of caring for my parasympathetic nervous system — bit by bit, exercise by exercise, breath by breath — I have been able to feel a difference in my whole system. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s dramatic. But it’s there. Conscious breathing has played a significant role, of late.

It’s good to be getting back. I’ve been toughing it out just about all my life, but this past 5 years has kicked my butt, to the point where toughing it out is no longer the best solution I can think of. Now I have other ways of dealing with the crises and dramas — ways which involve really basic care of myself, basic care of my system, and attending to the details of my life with a much greater depth than I’ve been able to manage for a number of years.

But now I am remembering who and what I am. I am remembering what matters most to me. I am re-learning the wonder and magic of paying attention to little things, and seeking deeper meaning from my life than what the television has to offer. I am re-learning the discipline of just sitting and observing what’s going on around me, rather than diving in with the intention of “fixing” what isn’t mine to fix. I am re-learning the fine art of calm in the midst of storms, as well as making my way in the world in my own individual way.

I wish I could say it’s coming naturally to me. I used to be able to say that. I used to know it and feel it. I seem to recall that I used to not have to really work at it. But I’m not adverse to work, and if extra effort is required to get me back to a place where I can piece back my life into a state of quiet dignity and genuine happiness. then so be it.

Beyond the “skull-based brain”

I’ve been watching the videos of Dr. Dan Siegel, over the past couple of weeks, and he’s really got me thinking. He talks about “the embodied brain” — the physical experiences of life and how they interact with the neural networks in our heads to produce certain firing patterns, which make up the fabric of our lives. He also talks about the brain being more than the organ that’s in our heads.

As I now understand it, the “brain” as we know it, is the organ inside our skull which directs the activities of the central nervous system, but it’s not the only brain in the body.

We have other masses of neural connections throughout our body, in particular, in the gut and around the heart. They look very different from what’s in our heads, but they do the same type of work – regulating the system they are attached to in ways that are responsive to our surroundings.

The brain in our gut, the “enteric nervous system” manage[s] every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon.

enteric nervous system

Just like the larger brain in the head, researchers say, this system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut.

The gut contains 100 million neurons – more than the spinal cord. Major neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norephinephrine and nitric oxide are in the gut. Also two dozen small brain proteins, called neuropeptides are there along with the major cells of the immune system. Enkephalins (a member of the endorphins family) are also in the gut. The gut also is a rich source of benzodiazepines – the family of psychoactive chemicals that includes such ever popular drugs as valium and xanax.

And then we have the heart, which has a complex intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right. The heart’s brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells like those found in the brain proper. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.

The heart communicates with the brain and the rest of the body in three ways documented by solid scientific evidence: neurologically (through transmissions of nerve impulses), biochemically (through hormones and neurotransmitters), and biophysically (through pressure waves). In addition, growing scientific evidence suggests that the heart may communicate with the brain and body in a fourth way – energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions). Through these biological communication systems, the heart has a significant influence on the function of our brains and all our Systems.

The Little Brain In the Heart
The Institute of HeartMath has a great page here showing pictures of The “Little Brain In the Heart”

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “gut feelings” or “following your heart” — and those ways of orienting ourselves in life play a huge part in how we manage our lives. It’s almost like we have two extra “backup” brains in those areas of our bodies, which work with the brains in our skulls to keep our whole system moving, breathing, living.

And these two “extra” brains communicate freely with the brains in our heads. We feel it in our bodies when our head-brains observe our surroundings and reach certain conclusions about what it all means. Our guts get turned around, as do our hearts. Or quite the opposite takes place, with the butterflies in our stomachs subsiding and/or our hearts slowing down their frantic beating.

On top of it all, we have the central nervous system with all its amazing connections, the nerves, the ganglia, the axonal connections, the neurons, the constant flow of energy and electricity throughout our systems. We are literally electric, with charges and pulses carrying messages from one microscopic member of the system to another… all of us comprised of millions and billions of neurons, each of which makes 10,000 connections and on-off firing patterns that provide us with infinite potential to become what we most desire.

If you think of the “brain” as a central processing unit of neurons and axons and synapses and all the controlling activity that goes on in them, then our entire body is filled with our brain. It’s just just inside our skulls —  it’s all through our bodies.

Now, knowing more about this brain stuff today than I did a month ago, I have to say it changes my perception of “brain injury” a bit. All along, I’ve been thinking about brain injury as being something that happens only to the head. I’ve been thinking — and saying — that brain injury and head injury are the same thing. But now I have to rethink this. And I have to start saying “head injury” a whole lot more than “brain injury” because while my head may have gotten banged up over the years, my gut brain and my heart brain have not taken the same sort of beating — they’ve taken different ones, of course, but they haven’t had the same specific sorts of physical impacts that my head has had.

At the same time, I have to consider other injuries I’ve had — such as when I fell out of a tree when I was 14 or 15 years old and landed across a log on my back — that affected my spine, which is chock-full of nerves and connections. And let’s not forget the car accidents. Don’t want to leave them out of the picture. I need a broader view of what makes my life more “interesting”. And I need a broader view of what makes my life more whole.

Indeed, when I think about the brain as encompassing body experience and knowledge and processing, as well as what’s in my head, it offers some pretty good clues as to how I’ve managed to stay in the game, so to speak, despite these injuries. If there’s more to my brain than what’s in my head… if my brain is actually distributed throughout my body… if I have other “backup brains” that are able to jump in and help out with information and energy processing throughout my whole system, then it relieves some of the intensity around my head injuries, and it offers me clues about how I am able to keep keepin’ on, despite my various setbacks over the years.

It’s complicated, of course… The head-brain clearly plays a part in regulating the rest of the body, and its importance is vital — we need it to live. But at the same time, what happens in the heart and the gut has its own intelligence, which impacts what goes on in the head, and that often goes unnoticed. I’m going to have to start thinking more carefully about this, as I go about my business. Pay more conscious attention to what my heart-brain and gut-brains are telling me — not just what my head-brain is gong on about.

Our systems are marvelously complex and interconnected. And it feels good to “get” that and be connecting things that I hadn’t really given much concentrated, focused thought to, in the past. It’s impossible to separate the system out into distinct pieces and truly make sense of it. I would even venture to say that the only truly thorough way to understand the system that is our “brain”, is to consider first the interconnections and interactions between its various elements, and then move from that point to understand the distinct parts.

I guess the bottom line is, there’s more to the brain than what’s in the head.

concussion now i’m stupid

Someone visited this blog yesterday with the search “concussion now i’m stupid” and it seems like it’s in the air.

I had a great day Saturday — I had a very social day, and I was out and about in town, which rarely happens with me. I either don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time, or I find a hundred other things to do that are more interesting than interacting with other people in a city.

But Saturday, I took a bunch of chances, and I had a ton of interactions that were really positive and encouraging.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. I wasn’t able to rest as much as I had wanted/planned, and I was really feeling the effects of all the exertion on Saturday. Even if the exertion was good and positive, it was still exertion, and I didn’t remember to rest.

One of my big problems is, when I get over-tired, I often forget to self-monitor. That happened to my yesterday. So, I ran into trouble.

With a Capital T. Had a huge meltdown yesterday. As in — rage and tears and being stuck in a loop of anger and shame and frustration and resentment. I hate when that happens. I could feel it coming on, and I thought I could stop it, but I couldn’t. It was like a repeat tsunami of unwanted overwrought emotion. Waters pulling out, then washing in and wrecking everything in its path. Emotion pulling out, then rushing back in and leveling everything in its way.  It came and went for about three hours, and it totally screwed me up — and my spouse. Not pretty at all. And I’m still “hungover” from it this morning.

Ugh.

Looking back on things with a less emotional eye, one of the things that complicated my situation yesterday was that insidious little voice in the back of my head that managed to find everything I’d done “wrong” on Saturday, amplified it about a thousand times, and then commenced to tell me You’re So Brain-Damaged and Stupid. Who would ever love or care about you? You’re such an idiot – you had a concussion — no, wait, you had a bunch of concussions – and now you’re stupid. You’re so stupid you don’t even know how stupid you are.

Stupid.

Well, you get the idea. And sure enough, as always happens when that voice gets going, before long, I was at war with the world, at war with myself, at war with my spouse, at war with my job, at war with everything and everyone who came anywhere near me.

concussion now i’m stupid…

My thinking is too slow, I’m not sharp and quick like I used to be, I’m not even funny anymore (and I used to be a laugh and a half all the time), and who would want to bother with me?

Geez.

It’s bad enough that I have to contend with the physical and logistical issues, but when that voice gets going… well, the only thing to do is go to bed.

I managed to do that eventually, but not on my own steam. I had to be guided to bed and put away like a cholicky baby. I friggin’ hate when I’m reduced to that. But when I’m in the midst of that storm/tsunami, I cannot for the life of me pull myself out.

For future reference, I need to keep the image of the tsunami in my mind, when I feel it coming up. So I can get to higher ground. Tell my spouse I need to take a break, and remove myself to my bedroom or study, to simmer down. Just get myself out of the way of the wave. Maybe go out for a walk in the woods. I did that yesterday at the end of the day,  and it helped tremendously. Yes, the walk in the woods — climbing up to the top of the nearest big hill — helps me a whole lot.

I also have to have a talk with my spouse about this TBI business – it’s not okay for them to talk to me like I’m an idiot, which is what they’ve been doing more and more over the past year. Apparently, they seem to think that because my memory is a bit spotty at times, and my processing speed has slowed, I’ve lost my innate intelligence. Either that, or they have always acted this way, and I’ve just recently stopped allowing myself to be intimidated into hiding my issues from them. That’s always a possibility.

So, there are three main issues I am contending with — the wave of emotion that cannot and will not be stopped and can only be avoided until it calms down… the voice in my head that tells me I’m stupid… and the voice I live with that tells me I’m impaired. The first one, I just have to be mindful of and learn to avoid being swept away. The second one, I have to either ignore or actively argue with. The third I have to have a serious talk with — and possibly involve my neuropsych to explain to my spouse that my relative weaknesses are manageable and don’t mean I’m reduced to a simpleminded shadow of my old self. Some days it feels like that — like yesterday — but it’s not the truth of the matter.

But ultimately, the bottom line is, here’s the #1 Lesson I (re)learned over the weekend:

I have to pace myself. If I have a big day, even if it is a really good big day, I need to take the next day OFF and SLEEP. Rest. For real. Nothing else matters. No distracting entertainment is worth the price I’ll pay for exhaustion.

Achieving more by doing less

I am really resisting writing this post, but I have to put it out there for the sake of honesty — and also to get it into my head that this is the way things are now.

It’s not that what I’m thinking about is a bad thing, or even an unpleasant thing. It’s a new thing — a true thing — that I’ve been resisting for as long as I can remember, much to the dismay of my family, my coworkers, and my neuropsych.

I hate having to admit that I have been wrong, and they have been right… but in this case at least, I have to admit it:

I get more accomplished, when I do less.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, to admit it. What’s the big deal?

Well, people have been “on” me for years, that I do too much. I take on too much. I have too much on my plate. I’m spread too thin. My spouse has been lecturing me for years, that I don’t relax enough and I have too many projects going on. We’ve actually had some pretty bad fights about it. I defended my hyper-busy-ness with every fiber of my being, till the bitter end, and it’s not helped our marriage at all. But I was convinced that I was right, in having twelve balls in the air. I felt so energized. Like I could do anything. And it never seemed like there was a problem. If I didn’t finish things, so what? They were boring, I told myself. And I needed a fresh start.

Well, that outlook has modified somewhat over the past couple of years that I’ve been working with my neuropsych.  Taking a long, hard look at my patterns on a regular basis, I’ve realized that being super-busy is often a direct result of anxiety. It’s not about positive exuberance. It’s not about having a vision of a future I can eagerly step into fully and with all confidence. It’s about existential angst that is welling up and driving me ahead of it, like a wild stagecoach driver whipping the team of horses into a mad gallop… in the meantime not holding the reins or guiding them in any particular direction.

This mad gallop is plain to everyone else’s discernment. It’s obviously a ploy on my part to avoid life, rather than engage with it. But it is disguised from my view by something in my perception that interprets a mad dash towards whatever comes to mind as a positive and life-affirming thing ;}

Over the years, countless people have tried to get me to stop and look at what I was doing, but I resisted — and resented — their “interference” with my grand plans. I wasn’t planning, of course. I was just flying willy-nilly in every and all directions, for the sake of flying willy-nilly. Nothing more. And when I got to a point where I couldn’t continue with what I was doing, I’d drop it… and then wonder, sometimes years later, why I ever quit what I was doing, if I was so devoted to it.

Crazy.

Well, as I mentioned, that’s been changing over the past year or so. Once I started logging all my activities and tracking them — for real, not in some quasi-reflective journal entry that rambled on about this and that for pages on end — I started seeing what was really going on in my life, and I wasn’t pleased. I looked back on all the projects I’d started — each one seeming like the thing that was going to catapult me to greatness and/or solve all my personal problems through professional success. What I saw was not greatness, but whatever-ness. Oh, man… what a wakeup call.

And I started to admit that maybe I was spending an awful lot of time on things for the wrong reasons. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin. No… obviously I was spreading myself  too thin. Judging by what little I was getting done versus what lots I was putting into my efforts, my approach was not effective. It was downright disastrous.

So, I decided to change things up. I swept a whole bunch of projects off my plate. I trimmed the fat off my docket considerably, tabling projects I thought would be cool, but obviously demanded a lot more time and energy and manpower than I could muster. I decided to do without a lot of the lists I made for myself. I also quit imagining I was going to have these multiple career paths, and be able to pick and choose between the cream of the crop, on down the line, whenever I chose to switch my path.

And it was working out pretty well. Suddenly, I had a lot more time to devote to my pet projects — the really pet ones, that is. I could focus more on the details that had slipped by me before. And I had a lot more bandwidth to do the things I enjoyed during my free time. Sleep hasn’t appealed to me much over the past months, because I was still totally into the idea that I could continue to keep up a blistering pace on a select few things — for the fun of it. Literally. I felt really “on” at work — I felt like I was really making headway and was taking the tiger by the tail.  Woo hoo – right?

Um… not so much. Now, months on down the line, I find myself worn out, all turned around by myriad details that once seemed so clear to me, and not delivering at the rate my boss wants me to. My thinking is not clear, my relationships at work are suffering, I feel like I’m slipping into a hole of my own digging, and I’m battling to get myself out. I find myself taxed and tapped, angry and raging and resentful and antagonistic and defensive and increasingly volatile… saying things I wish I hadn’t… and my marriage and work situation are both suffering as a result.

Here, I’d thought I was supporting my family and my coworkers better by driving myself like a crazyperson, taking on all sorts of tasks, when all I was doing was driving myself — and my spouse and my coworkers — crazy.

Which brings me to what I’ve been learning — the hard way — over the past couple of weeks.

I actually perform better, and I accomplish more, when I do less.

… As in, when I work in intervals — planning and thinking things through ahead of time, then mustering my energy and tackling tasks with full attention and focus.

… As in, when I spend less time on busy-work, and I devote the bulk of my attention to strategic and tactical planning and implementation, saving my logistical energy for select tasks — no more than two or three a day.

Indeed, I do better, when I tackle less of the little niggling details work that’s just filler for my time and is more about my brain thinking such-and-such is important, when it’s not really.

And I accomplish more when I don’t insist on taking on this mountain of everything by myself, as I’ve always been prone to do.

Truly, the practice of only doing 2-3 significant things a day, when I used to tackle at least five-to-ten times that amount, is a huge change for me. It’s a difficult change… An unsettling turn of events. It makes me nervous — incredibly anxious. I feel like I should be doing something. But during those stretches when I’m “doing something” to the tune of 20 deliverables a day, and I look back on my notes about what I actually accomplished, well, the results are a lot less impressive, than my fantastical plans.

But if I break it all down and pick and choose from the things I need to get done and don’t worry about the other things, till I get the most immediate couple of things done, it’s friggin’ magic, man.  I get waaaaaay more accomplished if I take things 2 and 3 tasks at a time and do them in an extremely focused and intense fashion, than if I “pace myself” and take on 20-3o items (no joke) at a “reasonable pace”.

They say timing is everything. It’s true. It’s even more true that the right timing in the right way for the person in question is more-than-everything. Some people can go slow and steady through a mountain of small details. I, on the other hand, drown in those details. Just like there are slow-twitch muscles that long-distance runners use, and fast-twitch muscles that sprinters use, I’m more of a fast-twitch kind of person. And if I slow down to go at a “reasonable” pace, I’m toast.

So, there we have it. I’ve had my helping of crow for the day. I have to admit, it feels good to say/write it out loud, but it’s been a long time coming. And I have a lot of work to do, to reverse the damage that’s come from ignoring and denying the truth about how I work best — and worst. But reverse this, I will. I’m the comeback kid. I’m not going to quit till I get where I need to be.

Even though I know it’s good for me and it’s the only way I can really work effectively, the idea of only doing a few things  a day still makes me intensely anxious. I don’t expect to get used to it overnight.

But you know what? Doing a little bit at a time in a very focused, intentional way gets me there. And since actually getting there is what matters to me (and my spouse and my coworkers and my boss) — even more than the “journey” on the way — that’s what I’ve got to focus on. Results. For real. Not plans and methodologies. Results. What works. What works for me.

Onward.

How Can I Recognize a Possible Concussion?

One of the nice things about being a blogger is that I can add my information to the general wealth of data about subjects of interest to me – in this case, mild traumatic brain injury. This blog is about more than telling my side of the story — it’s about fleshing out info that other trusted sources provide, in ways that are personal and individual… and hopefully contributing to the general understanding about traumatic brain injury, and sports-related concussion in particular.

The CDC has a wealth of information on concussion in youth sports over at their Heads-Up site.

What’s missing is a bit of in-depth explanation about the different points they make.

Since this month is Brain Injury Awareness Month, I hope to contribute to the awareness piece with further info and examples from my own concussion experiences.

From the CDC site about recognizing concussions:

To help recognize a concussion, you should watch for the following two things among your athletes:

  • A forceful bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body that results in rapid movement of the head.

AND

  • Any change in the athlete’s behavior, thinking, or physical functioning.

Athletes who experience any of the signs and symptoms listed below after a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body should be kept out of play the day of the injury and until a health care professional, experienced in evaluating for concussion, says they are symptom-free and it’s OK to return to play.

Signs Observed by Coaching Staff

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Is confused about assignment or position
  • Forgets an instruction
  • Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (even briefly)
  • Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
  • Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Can’t recall events after hit or fall

Symptoms Reported by Athlete

  • Headache or “pressure” in head
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy, or groggy
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Does not “feel right” or is “feeling down”

Remember, you can’t see a concussion and some athletes may not experience and/or report symptoms until hours or days after the injury. Most people with a concussion will recover quickly and fully. But for some people, signs and symptoms of concussion can last for days, weeks, or longer.

Now, for some explanation to fill in the blanks…

To help recognize a concussion, you should watch for the following two things among your athletes:

  • A forceful bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body that results in rapid movement of the head.

The head, atop the neck, holds our precious brain — which has the consistency of pudding, and is surrounded by fluid which protects it from the bony inside of our skulls. Unfortunately, the bony insides of our skulls can have rough/sharp edges which can rake across the surface of the brain and cause damage that way, should the head/bodybe knocked so hard that the brain pushes past the protective fluid and scrapes against the inside of the skull.

You can see a video of different types of brain injury at YouTube. It’s very informative, and I recommend it.

When the body or head is hit hard enough, the brain can hit against the front inside part of the skull, be injured there — and then fly back against the rear of the skull (called coup-contracoup — which means head-back0fhead — injury), causing damage to the rear part of the brain as well. Under ideal conditions, the protective fluid provides an ample buffer to shelter the brain, and the inside of the skull is not really sharp and uneven. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that that’s the case.

Forceful bumps or blows or jolts to the head can be things like:

  • being hit on the head by a ball, such as in soccer or baseball
  • colliding with another player and bumping heads
  • being elbowed or kicked in the head
  • colliding with the catcher and slamming your head against his/hers when you’re trying to steal homebase
  • falling and hitting your head on the basketball court floor

Another way the brain can be injured by a hard hit to the body, is a whiplash effect — where the connections that are located at the base of the skull and neck are twisted and torn by the head snapping forward and backwards really hard. You don’t need to be knocked out, and you don’t even need to have your head hit, to sustain a concussion in sports.

Forceful bumps or blows or jolts to the body can be things like:

  • being tackled hard in football
  • being fouled hard and knocked to the floor in basketball
  • falling during a soccer game
  • colliding with another player when going after the same ball
  • landing hard after any kind of fall, even if your head doesn’t hit the ground
  • running into the wall when you’re eplaying squash/raquetball

It’s important to remember that these very common collision/impact occurrences (which are part and parcel of just about any sport) will NOT necessarily lead to concussion. If everyone who was tackled hard, or fell, or was fouled hard and ended up on the floor/ground sustained a concussion, there would be a whole lot of impaired people walking around.

Being hit or tackled or falling during a game or practice is NOT a guarantee of a concussion. This is where the next criteria comes in… the “and” part.

AND

This AND is important. The first set of criteria — the bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body are no guarantee that a brain injury has occurred, but they can serve as a trigger to watch out for the following. The next point is what acts as an alert that a concussive event has occurred.

  • Any change in the athlete’s behavior, thinking, or physical functioning.

Signs Observed by Coaching Staff

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Is confused about assignment or position
  • Forgets an instruction
  • Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (even briefly)
  • Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
  • Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Can’t recall events after hit or fall

Symptoms Reported by Athlete

  • Headache or “pressure” in head
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy, or groggy
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Does not “feel right” or is “feeling down”

Here are some examples from my own experience:

When I sustained a concussion from a hard tackle during a football game in high school, there was an immediate change in my thinking and physical functioning.

  • First of all, I was not thinking as quickly as I was before the hit. Even I could tell I was slower — I wasn’t following the calls by the quarterback very well, and I was clearly a little dimmer than I had been before the hit. I had trouble understanding what was said in the huddles before the following plays, and I had trouble following the instructions I was given. For example (I can’t remember the exact details, but this is how it was), when I was told to go long and then cut left at a certain point, I went long, but I didn’t cut left.
  • Secondly, I was not as coordinated as I had been before the hit. I ran clumsily — like I was drunk — and I couldn’t catch the ball when it was thrown right to me. I also stumbled a lot, and I fell a few more times. For all I know, I did more damage to myself, but I was so totally focused on continuing the game and not letting my teammates down, I refused to take myself out of the game. They had to stop the whole game, completely, to get me to quit playing. I was that stubborn.

When I sustained another concussion from a fall during a soccer game a year or two later  in high school, there was yet another immediate change in my physical functioning and behavior.

  • First of all, I was a lot less coordinated than I had been before I fell. I couldn’t control the ball as well as I had before, and it felt like I was moving in slow motion. I stumbled and fumbled, and there was obviously something different about how I was playing.
  • Second, I was not the same player I’d been before my fall. Before, I had been aggressive and confident on the field. Afterwards, I was hesitant, confused, and I hesitated before shooting on the goal (or just plain failed to shoot). I had a number of opportunities to score, but I didn’t, because I was uncertain and confused. I was also less able to be a team player. I didn’t pass the ball to my open teammates as frequently as I should have. I also became more withdrawn and was not communicating with the coaching staff on the sidelines. It was like I was in my own little concussed world, suspended in a foggy soup that slowed down all the input and output.

Athletes who experience any of the signs and symptoms listed below after a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body should be kept out of play the day of the injury and until a health care professional, experienced in evaluating for concussion, says they are symptom-free and it’s OK to return to play.

Absolutely, positively. This must be done. Unfortunately, I myself never received any medical evaluation or treatment for my injuries. But on the bright side, I was removed from play in both instances. Nobody watched me afterwards to make sure I was symptom-free and it was OK for me to return to play. Then again, by the time I got to those games, I’d had a number of TBIs already, so I already showed symptoms of impairment. Still, the changes I did experience, on those two separate instances, were clear indicators that I’d undergone a concussive event. I only wish someone had known what to look for, and helped me out.

Another important piece of the CDC info is:

Remember, you can’t see a concussion and some athletes may not experience and/or report symptoms until hours or days after the injury. Most people with a concussion will recover quickly and fully. But for some people, signs and symptoms of concussion can last for days, weeks, or longer.

This cannot be overstated. Concussion, hidden as it is inside the skull, can also be hidden by time. It can take hours or days for symptoms to show up, which is why it is so important that not only coaches, but also teachers and parents and teammates are all familiar with the danger signs and informed about how to respond appropriately.

One of the things that can show up later, are behavioral issues. Indeed, behavioral issues are the bugaboo of mild traumatic brain injury, because on the surface everything looks fine, and the brain may have recovered from its initial trauma, but there are microscopic changes under the surface that can have long-lasting effects. If you know someone who plays sports, whose behavior has suddenly started to change for the worst – suddenly they have a lot of anger, rage, irritability, distractability, sensory issues, fatigue, insomnia –  it could be they had a concussion during a game or some other event — and nobody realized it, including them.

Concussion doesn’t just affect the student athletes — it affects everyone who interacts with them, everyone who loves and cares about them. It’s in all our best interests to learn about it, learn what to watch for. And to report it to someone who can help.

As the CDC says, most people recover quickly and fully, and it doesn’t need to wreck their lives. But if you don’t pay attention to the first warning signs, it is all too easy to re-injure yourself (having a concussion increases your chances of experiencing another one from 2-6 times). So, paying attention, right from the get-go can help prevent other problems from happening.

In retrospect, I wonder what might have happened, if I’d stuck with track and field and cross country exclusively, and not played any team sports that involved tackling or the danger of falling/collisions. I wonder if I would have been so susceptible to drugs and alcohol, if my behavior would have been so problematic. Thinking back, I had a ton of problems when I was a kid that actually resolved as a result of organized sports. Unfortunately, the thing that helped me most, also introduced more problems to my mix.

Well, I can’t worry about it. What’s done is done, in my case. I’m just happy I’m as functional and well-off as I am, today.

I also hope that coaches and trainers and teachers and teammates are learning enough, today, to help avoid the kinds of situations I got myself into… and help address the after-effects of the kinds of injuries that I — and hundreds of thousands of others young athletes — experienced. The CDC material is really helpful, and they have lots of free information and additional materials available.

Check ‘em out. It’s worth the trip.